There are cultural critics who tell it like it is, who say what everyone is thinking but are too afraid to say (possibly for good reason) and then there are those that puncture clichés both spoken and unspoken and present us with fresh thoughts, ideas we’ve never thought of before.
Slate writer Laura Kipnis falls into the latter category. The author of Against Love: a Polemic brings her contrarian approach to the subject of men in her latest collection of essays, Men: Notes from an Ongoing Investigation.
In Men, Kipnis playfully humanizes a collection of oddballs, scoundrels and dolts (Tiger Woods, John Edwards, Anthony Weiner) and in so doing reasserts an essential idea that’s often lost in gender debates: we’re still changing and far too quickly to grasp any firm certainties either way.
Neither a moral arbiter nor an overheated opinion factory, Kipnis acts as something like a cultural conscience, forcing us to collectively examine the basis of our reactions to sex, scandal and hopeless politicians who are compelled to say “cheese” every time they take their pants off.
Here we discuss men, women, feminism and what underlies our outrage culture.
How did Men come about?
At one point, I was looking back at things I’d written over the last 10 or 15 years and I realized that an awful lot of it had actually been about men. At the same time I’d been having an argument with my boyfriend, a kind of joking argument, in which he said I was too often for his preferences bringing up old boyfriends in conversation. And so I agreed not to mention old boyfriends anymore.
But the question became, Was there something preoccupying to me about men and my relation to men? When I went back and was reading these essays, it was sort of with that question in my mind. When I rewrote them I was writing much more in the first person than I had in the past and being a lot more autobiographical which I had tended to avoid in previous writings. It was a kind of self-exploration as well. Putting this collection together was a way of asking that question of myself, What are men to me?
In the introduction you say that the essays together reveal your “covert envy of men.” And that envy is derived from their freedom. What is their most enviable freedom?
I think it’s something like the freedom to act badly and to be somewhat less self-conscious in public, or in private too. I may be a particularly self-conscious person but I do think that there is something about femininity and the kind of socialization that you undergo as women that just is more constricting than it is for men. I mean just even in the sense of bodily freedom. You ride the subway and you look at the way men are sitting versus women. I just think that filters into all elements of our lives and our consciousness and that kind of thing.
The men you write about are oddballs who’ve fucked up publicly—not exactly the kinds of men that compel attention beyond the headlines they generate or motivate compassionate investigation; Anthony Weiner for example, or John Edwards and Tiger Woods. Why? What is it about the way they were handled publicly that made you want to take a second humanizing look?
I just am allergic to that sort of moral high ground. It’s always struck me as so hypocritical and self-exonerating. My impulse is usually to find points of commonality, or when I hear myself doing that moralizing move to think, Why do I need to prop myself at this other person’s expense?
It just sets me off hearing people do that. In a lot of these scandals, I’m thinking back to Eliot Spitzer. On the one hand, you have people feigning shock that another politician or sports figure has been found out to be sleeping with a bunch of women. And on the other hand, there’s a certain kind of glee that another public figure or person in his position of power or prestige has been brought down. It’s that glee that I always hear behind the moralizing and that in itself seems scummy to me.
In an essay about Naomi Wolf’s disclosure about Harold Bloom coming on to her as a student at Yale, you note a real shift in how we talk about sexual experience. You say that once upon a time we viewed sexual experience as experience and now a lot of it—even pretty standard stuff–is processed as trauma and many women are feeling victimized as a result, a status that robs them of the power they do have and gives a kind of inflated villainy to men. It’s an interesting point. What do you think accounts for it?
I do think that looking back historically over the last 50 years or so from the time of the sexual revolution on, I mean certainly HIV and AIDS was a big trauma, a bit of a changing point for general feelings about sexuality. I see that in my students. They are so much more fearful and suspicious of sex than people were when I was growing up, so I definitely think that the kind of sex education that people get has something to do with it. To some degree it’s justified caution but it really infiltrates what they think sex is and I think how it feels for them. So that’s one thing.
But I think also in terms of American feminism, the anti-pornography movement and the focus on rape and the connection between the two, so that rape always seemed to be for a lot of women the culmination of male sexuality…that slippery slope sort of narrative that comes from both those sites, the historical facts both from HIV and AIDS and from pornography, there’s something catastrophic I think that started to hover around the whole fear of sexuality for women.
It’s strange because we’re so permeated by sexual imagery and content and everybody is acting like, ‘Ow, he touched my knee!’
It’s very schizophrenic. I think the whole culture is very schizophrenic. Because then you’ve got women going around and acting like porn stars and feeling like they get something back from the world on that basis. It’s like women’s culture is very split on these lines too.
One of the things I took away from the collection was how little we understand not just male behaviour but human behaviour. How can it be that men remain such foreign territory to us at this point in time? And what does that say about our capacity for self-knowledge, too?
That’s a pretty huge question. There’s this backdrop of demographic and social change obviously in gender roles, in economic roles, all of that is in the background and the dust still hasn’t settled…
But I also think for heterosexual women there’s this real conflict between wanting a man and everything a man represents, whether it’s commitment or the potential to have children with a man, or love—all of these huge important things—and I still think for a lot of women there’s a sense of incompletion if there’s not a man in your life.
Quite recently it was pretty assumed that everyone would get married and have children. For my mother’s generation it was incredibly rare for women to be single. So that all having changed so recently, and I think to some degree men, too, are resisting the roles that women would like to cast them in, so it’s hard not to have a kind of antagonism to either individuals or the whole species if you see them as standing in the way of your desires or your conduit to happiness.
The old question of what men and women want from one another may not be the same thing and it’s hard to figure out what to do with that situation for sure.
One of the insights I appreciated, particularly in the current climate, is your idea that being offended really tells you who you are in the deepest ways. Culturally, we’re in an offense loop. Why?
There’s a whole outrage industry. I started thinking about this…one of the first books I wrote was about pornography. I had started thinking about Larry Flynt and it was when I wrote about him that I ended up getting asked to write more things about pornography and ended up with this book on pornography, which I hadn’t really planned to write. But I was interested in my own sort of outrage to begin with about Hustler and feeling offended and what I guess I realized is that feeling offended—and I think this may be a more gender thing and that women are to some degree more prone to it than men—feels like being in danger. Where intellectually you understand that a magazine doesn’t really endanger you, but this feeling of offense sort of opens up feeling of vulnerability. It’s something about emotional life that’s really worth thinking about.
But in terms of public outrage about things—you know every person that says something unfortunate in public these days and starts some whole Twitter thing—I guess there’s a kind of pleasure in outrage too. The pleasure of seeing someone else fall not even from grace but it can be aimed at people these days from people that aren’t in a public position…it’s really pretty interesting how much pleasure people take in other’s people’s downfalls. I suppose it goes back to these shaming rituals where people were put in stockades in the public square and shunned by the community. It sort of consolidates the community as well. There’s something ritualistic about it, the bloodletting.